Johns Hopkins University researchers have released two follow-up papers to their fascinating 2006 study in Psychopharmacology, in which 36 healthy volunteers were given psilocybin (also known as “magic” or “sacred” mushrooms) under controlled laboratory conditions.
Subjects in the original study were screened to rule out any predisposition toward psychosis or other serious mental illnesses, which can be exacerbated by hallucinogenic drug experiences. The rigorous process involved two different 8-hour laboratory visits, during which subjects received psilocybin on one occasion and a placebo (Ritalin) on the other. The study was double-blind, meaning neither the participants nor their highly trained “monitors”, who were present for safety reasons during the trials, knew who was getting what. These precautions ensured that nobody entered the psilocybin experience with any prior expectations.
For the first follow-up paper, researchers checked back in with subjects fourteen months after their hallucinogenic experiences:
[Lead investigator Dr. Roland] Griffiths re-administered the questionnaires used in the first study — along with a specially designed set of follow up questions — to all 36 subjects. Results showed that about [two thirds] of the volunteers ranked their experience in the study as the single most, or one of the five most, personally meaningful or spiritually significant events of their lives and regarded it as having increased their sense of well-being or life satisfaction.
“This is a truly remarkable finding,” Griffiths says. “Rarely in psychological research do we see such persistently positive reports from a single event in the laboratory. This gives credence to the claims that the mystical-type experiences some people have during hallucinogen sessions may help patients suffering from cancer-related anxiety or depression and may serve as a potential treatment for drug dependence. We’re eager to move ahead with that research.”
This is all well and good, but I’m sure many of you are wondering about safety. Enter the researchers’ second paper, also published recently in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, which discusses “best practices” for safety, standardization, and “providing psychological support during and after the hallucinogen experience”:
“With appropriately screened and prepared individuals, under supportive conditions and with adequate supervision, hallucinogens can be given with a level of safety that compares favorably with many human research and medical procedures,” says that paper’s lead author, Mathew W. Johnson, Ph.D., a psychopharmacologist and instructor in the Johns Hopkins Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.
That’s “under supportive conditions” and “with adequate supervision”, mind you. Consuming mushrooms at home without proper supervision has more potential for harm than good; even under the controlled conditions of the Johns Hopkins study, for example, some volunteers reported short-term fear or anxiety following their psilocybin experiences, and they had mental health professionals and trained monitors around to help them. Psilocybin mushrooms are also illegal in every U.S. state except Florida unless you have a special DEA license.
However, this research certainly opens up some exciting possibilities concerning the therapeutic use of psilocybin and other hallucinogenic compounds.